Middle Township football

Middle Township running back Terrance Toney works out during practice Tuesday, Aug 28, 2012.

Edward Lea

Frank Riggitano revived the Middle Township High School football program once, and he says he can do it again.

Riggitano, one of two coaches ever to lead the Panthers to the South Jersey playoffs, is back after 10 years away. He said the key now is the same as when he took over a 3-6 team in 1990: A healthy balance of discipline and fun.

“I think the biggest problem with our football program is not the kids as much as it is they’ve been through so many things in the last 10 years, so many different coaches,” Riggitano said. “It’s not the coaches’ fault. It’s not the kids’ fault. But you’ve got to establish a program and get the kids to buy in, and one of the things that we did years ago was have that happen, and we had some success.”

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The Panthers finished 2-8 last season and have gone 12-38 the past five seasons. But Riggitano doesn’t want to hear the word “rebuilding.”

“I think there was talent there last year, and we’re hoping to put those kids in positions where they highlight those talents,” he said.

Much of that skill is in the senior class. Split end/running back/defensive back Terrance Toney and running back/linebacker Zack Vogelei both have drawn interest from NCAA Division I programs, Riggitano said. The team will run a multiple Wing-T offense, with an emphasis on the run game.

“Everybody’s looking forward to this season because (Riggitano) came in and is making everybody want to play,” said Toney, who is being recruited as a safety and is ranked as the 42nd-best player in the state by ESPN.

There have been moments, Toney said, when Riggitano comes down hard on players for talking back to him. But the coach said the key is also getting the players respect by admitting when he’s wrong, as well as clowning around with them sometimes.

“They’ll have music on in the locker room and I’ll walk in and carry on, dance, and they can laugh,” said Riggitano, who in 1999 let his players shave his hair into a mohawk after beating rival Lower Cape May Regional.

The Middle players are aware that there are skeptics who don’t believe Riggitano can do it again. The coach himself reminds them of it.

“He tells us everybody’s been doubting us this year and not thinking we’re going to be good at all,” Toney said. “And he’s saying we are going to be a top team, looking forward to being one of the top teams in our division.”

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